Predicting the Future
We often attempt to predict the future. “The stock market is going up today.” When our predictions fail, we dismiss this onetime mistake. Our ability to predict the future extends deep into writing. As an example, nearly every science fiction movie/story is set in the future. Readers and viewers love futuristic technology and societies that have futuristic problems.
However, we haven’t come to grasp with how bad our future predictions are. Is the stock market going up or down? This simple question has a yes/no answer, yet we cannot reliably answer that question. Of course, not being able to predict the future isn’t necessarily bad. If we had this ability, we wouldn’t have sports, gambling or news. However, wars, car accidents and crime wouldn’t occur. Amusing tradeoffs.
Let’s explore a basic example. A few weeks ago, I got a flat tire. How could I have predicted that? Math can answer this question. On average, cars get X number of flat tires per year. This means I had a Y% chance that day. Given the types of roads I travel, I estimate my odds at 1:500 or a 0.2% chance of getting a flat tire. Of course, we accept that this percentage is an estimate and not a prediction. Why did my number come up that particular day? My luck simply ran out.
This 0.2% situation is understandable at a basic level (we accept that cars get flat tires) and yet, I am unable to predict it. A random nail, ended up on the road I chose to travel down on that day and I randomly struck it.
What about a non-random event? It took thousands of people many months to plan the Pearl Harbor attack. Every one of them knew the attack would occur and chose not to share this information. While there were warning signs, the attack caught the military by surprise. Could that large event have been predicted? In my opinion, the warning signs should have been taken more seriously. However, history records that many sources of information were ignored and thus, nobody accurately predicted the event.
Of course, our lack of future predicting ability does not prevent authors/screenwriters from trying their best. We even have futuristic shows like the Jetsons where an entire society is visualized. The problem with such situations is they are largely incorrect. In the 1950s, writers predicted flying cars, atomic wars, space travel to distant planets, thinking computers, robots, and perfect health. All of this would occur in the 1980s.
In addition, the 1950s authors did not predict the amazing things which did occur. We now have powerful cell phones and the world watched the rise/fall/rise of China/Russia. However, our society is mostly the same, and the predicted atomic wars didn’t occur. Not much drama. Where is the disconnect? Let’s look at the single topic of computers. In the 1950’s they were huge and expensive. It seemed reasonable they would evolve to be smaller and faster. However, the people who imagined what they could do misinterpreted the fundamental computer basics.
At the heart of a computer is a processor, and this runs software. As a system, computers are limited to the available information and their programming logic. The prediction that computers will “think” like us is flawed. This is because a person can imagine, explore and come to wild conclusions far beyond available information and logic. Computers will never be able to act with such chaos. Yet, authors and screenwriters continue to ignore this fundamental fact.
What about Siri and Amazon Echo? We can speak to them and they “think.” Not exactly. “Hey, Seri. What is 2+2?” “Four.” “Hey Seri. I have two oranges and two apples. How much fruit do I have?” “I’m unable to answer that.” Is that a real question? Of course. Does it have a logical answer? Sure. The problem is that the answer is abstract, and the world is 99% abstract. I am sure Siri will evolve to the point where basic questions may be answered, but a computer equivalent to a person is a long way off.
The reality of life 100 years from now will be 10% amazing and 90% the same. People will still put on socks one foot at a time, drive cars with wheels, go to work with lousy bosses, eat food from farms, go to school with teachers and sleep on beds. What if aliens land? Those aliens will be from planets that are 30% amazing and 70% the same as earth. Their alien children will go to boring alien schools with alien teachers that go home and sleep in their alien beads after eating alien food grown on alien farms.
One last thought. In the Dick Tracy comic strip, they use communication watches. Wow, just like an Apple Watch with Skype. Yay, the predictions did come true. Hold on. While visually similar, they are not at all the same. The Dick Tracy watch is an extension of television and radio. Dick Tracy uses his watch to communicate directly to his boss over radio. He cannot call up a random person and have a visual conversation like we can with an Apple watch.
Overall, an Apple watch is not a communication device. Instead, it allows many applications to interact with the user. Could the author of Dick Tracy have predicted this device? In my opinion no. Why? It took many leaps in technology to get to an Apple watch; far more than could have been predicted.
Where does this lead us? Reading stories that take place in the future is exciting but they will never be accurate. That’s fine as long as we remember this fact. Will I attempt to write stories set in the distant future? Of course. Predicting the future is fun. Plus, it is easy. The future has not happened yet and who is to say I am wrong until we get there.
You’re the best -Bill
October 16 2019
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